Tag Archives: Belians

Scene 271 – Purgatio

PURGATIO

FIERNA

It was Friday, December thirteenth. No… no, that was yesterday. Saturday, Saturday the fourteenth. I needed to remember that. Dates were important. Everything was important, but dates were important. If I lost dates, I was losing everything.

The mentats supplied by my chem glands kept my brain sharp. But if I lost my mind, my brain was just along for the ride. Needed to keep my mind to keep my brain. Keep my mind to keep my brain.

Saturday, Saturday.

“Please, Honored Noble!” the vampire at the foot of my throne begged, weeping. “Have mercy.”

I sipped from a wine glass of unflavored blood. My father had ordered that no one was allowed to flavor their blood, and Balan had kept that ridiculous edict going for years. That would be fine, but Gazra had used up all my hidden stash of flavoring while I was gone. Bastard. I had ordered him to find more, but no one was selling to us right now. Not even anything as innocent as flavor packets.

The point was, my day was not going well.

I leaned down, shoulders held expertly to keep my cloak on. “Why, exactly, should I grant you mercy, Ningal? Did you give any to your sclavi, or to your husband, for that matter?” I leaned back. “You remind me of Xinivrae.”

The petite woman flinched as if she had been slapped.

Perhaps that was too harsh. I swished the liquid around in my glass. “Ningal, your story is a simple one. You were powerless and oppressed, so when you found power, you oppressed others. I am not interested in some petty vengeance.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“I am interested in loyalty.”

“Honored Noble, I never stopped searching for you—”

“Yes. I know. You sent Inanna and her get after me.”

She flinched again. “Y-yes, but only as a test! I wasn’t sure it was you, and I knew you’d handle them flawlessly—”

“Stop.”

Her mouth shut with a click.

I rose from my throne and stepped around her, robe trailing on the ground. “Do you know what my father’s favorite pass time was, Ningal?”

“…yes, Honored Noble,” she said quietly.

I ignored her. “He loved bringing the strong down low. So he would force powerful drugs onto his enemies, turn them into little more than pliable pieces of walking meat, ready to be brainwashed to serve his every whim.”

I placed my free hand on her shoulder. She was shaking like a leaf.

“Perhaps that would be justice. Make you a sclav, give you a taste of what it is like to suffer under another. It is not a lesson someone with your origins would normally need, but you have clearly forgotten where you came from.”

“M-my lady Fierna, please.” She gripped my leg, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. “Please, I’ll do anything. Just—just not that. Don’t make me go back to that.”

I smiled, and patted her gently on the head. “Don’t worry, Ningal. I am not my father. I am not you, either. I know what it is like to be trapped in a haze of drugs and worse. I would not wish that on anyone.”

“T-thank you, Honored Noble! Thank you so, so much!”

“But I still can’t trust you.”

I snapped her neck with one hand.

I stepped over her corpse. “Chamberlain. What was her power?”

The vampire standing next to my throne with a pad tapped through it. “Nothing that we needed. Another variant on consuming blood.”

I nodded. “Ah, yes. She was the one who gained fire powers based on how much blood she drank, correct?”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“Ah, well. If we need pyros, we can call the Canians.” I waved my hand. “Ia-o de aici.”

My sclavi moved quickly, picking up the corpse and dragging it down the hall to Ogrémoch’s lair.

The sclavi were still mindless, unfortunately. We had been studying my mother’s notes and her work, but there was only so much we could do when Bel wasn’t willing to help us. We were a culture of hedonistic idiots, not scientists.

Gazra stepped around the corner, holding a small paper bag in his hands. “Is this a bad time?”

I rubbed the spot where my fixer used to be out of habit. “Yes. But I don’t suppose waiting will make it better.” I nodded to my chamberlain, and he left without a word. “Are those my flavors? Where did you get them?”

“A nice old vamp in Little Romania. Didn’t recognize me.”

I frowned. “I was hoping people recognized you, but were still willing to sell.”

He shook his head. “No such luck. Things might go easier if you ask Ishtar for help.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please. I asked her for help in joining Necessarius in the first place.”

“And that worked out fine. She didn’t say a word to anyone for five years. Balan even had her tortured in the early days, but she still kept her mouth shut.”

I briefly considered punishing him for that, but decided against it. Ishtar seemed to have forgiven him, I had to as well. “I’ll consider sending an envoy to talk to her. See if she can get a meeting with… Glasya, perhaps. Or maybe even Aka Manah.”

“She’ll be happier if you go.”

I laughed, and finally grabbed the bag from his hands, carrying it over to a nearby table. “Yes, she would be far happier. But I have work to do here. It is important that the people see that the throne is filled.”

“You’re just using that as an excuse.”

I rolled my eyes as I rooted through the bag. Where were the cinnamon ones? He knew I loved cinnamon. “I could always send you.”

“…she might actually kill me this time.”

“Death by sex isn’t such a bad way to go.”

“It’s less fun than it sounds, trust me.” He shook his head. “Plus I hear her power has something to do with her endurance—during the Rampage, she didn’t sleep at all. She had enough stamina before.”

I sighed. “I’ll talk to Bathym.” He was one of the few people she had never tried to seduce. Some said that it was because he was gay, but she always just considered that a challenge. I had a feeling that they were related in some way and just hadn’t told me.

Gazra poured a glass of his own. He put the powder in first, as always. “Has there been any word from Bel?”

“Just curt refusals. I still don’t know if he’s ignoring me because he doesn’t think I’m Fierna, or if he does, and doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

He swilled his drink around. “I thought it would obviously be the first one. He always liked you. Didn’t your mom introduce you? Without your dad around to screw things up?”

I grunted, and drank my own glass. “Well, yes, but there was that whole thing about helping Malcanthet try to break the Mother Monster.”

Gazra winced. “Yeah, I should have thought of that. But didn’t she forgive you?”

“Of course she did. She forgave everyone involved. Except maybe Lupa herself. But Bel is… well, he’s Bel. He can hold a grudge.”

He gave me an odd look. “You described him as a big old nerd who likes playing with the toy maker.”

“Nerds are good at holding grudges. It’s similar to the problem with Ningal. Somebody’s powerless for most of their lives, then you give them enough to get a little revenge, and…” I shrugged. “You’ve got quite the monster on your hands.”

Gazra snorted and sipped at his drink again. “Bel only looks like a monster.”

“But he’s good at holding grudges.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll deal with Bel later. For now, Dracul will be willing to meet—”

“I think I’d prefer to focus on internal matters right now,” I said quickly. “I’m still worried about Balan’s loyalty, and a lot of the nightstalkers don’t like the sound of my idea to give the sclavi their minds back. Ningal’s death will help, but I need to make some examples—”

“Fi,” he said. “Don’t run from this.”

I closed my eyes. “You know I hate talking to that man. He treats me like a child.”

“Children run from their problems.”

I cracked an eye open. “I ripped my damned fixer right off my arm, don’t say I run from anything.”

“And before that, you were running around anonymously as one of Butler’s random goons.”

I glowered, and sipped my drink. “Why do I keep you around?”

He shrugged, and put his own glass down. “Maybe because you know you need someone to tell you when you’re being stupid.”

“I kill most people who do that.”

He was unconcerned. “Or to remind you about important things outside the culture, like the Dragon being the only person willing to meet with you, or the war that’s coming to the city.”

“Even if Bel started working with us today, we wouldn’t crack my mother’s secrets soon enough to fight. Our sclavi will just be a liability in a large-scale battle.”

Or maybe I just have really nice hands.” He was behind me now, his nimble fingers working on my shoulder blades through the coat. “I think you have five years of knots here. Doesn’t Necessarius have masseuses?”

I smirked, even as I closed my eyes and let him continue. “Not covered under our insurance.”

“Maybe I should be upset about that on your behalf, but our insurance is still crap.”

“What about South Central Medical?”

“Went bankrupt a couple years ago.”

I groaned as he continued working on my shoulders. “Sânge și umbra… more problems to deal with.”

“You know the Dragon is good about helping with this sort of thing…”

I took a deep, tired breath. “He’s going to make us release the sclavi.”

“You want to release them!”

“Once we’ve weaned them off the physical chems, not just dump them in the street! If we—” He worked a knot in my upper back. “Ooh. If we release them, every single one of them will be snapped up by Butler.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad.”

I turned my head to give him a sidelong look. “For them? No, that would be fine.” I turned away again. “For us? It would be the death of the culture.”

There was a pause, as I leaned on the table while he continued massaging my shoulders.

“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

I turned around, knocking his hands aside. His face betrayed little emotion.

“You never wanted to be Fierna,” he said mildly. “You hate everything your father has built.”

“If Phlegethos falls, the Belians don’t fall with it,” I snapped. “They fracture. There will be a hundred different wanna-be warlords scrambling for control.”

“That didn’t happen when Malcanthet fell. Or any of a dozen kemo warlords I could name. Or, if you want to talk about vampires, when Perrikus died, or Tserron turned angel, or when Rimmon joined with Asmodeus.”

“We’re chem-heads, Gazra. Anybody could make a thousand more of us in a month, if they were following my father’s orders rather than mine. There’s no defense against getting injected with psycho and brainwashed.”

“But they won’t be Belians,” he insisted. “They won’t be your problem.”

“They will be. And they will be.” I shook my head. “Even if they’re not using my mother’s protocols, they’ll still be caused by me, by letting this culture break apart too fast. We can’t let this happen, especially not with war looming.”

Gazra sighed. “I know you’re not going to want to hear this—” He frowned, looking behind me. “Who’s that?”

I turned around. There was someone standing there in a black cloak, their face hidden behind the hood. That itself wasn’t too exceptional—vampires liked black, and they liked hoods. But hiding your face in front of your warlord was hardly polite. “You there. Arăta fața ta.”

They charged without a word.

Gazra and I split apart instantly, him countering the charge head on while I dodged back to grab the St. Euphemia I kept stashed behind my throne. Assassins would be ready for a warlord. It was surprising how few of them considered we might just grab a gun.

When I raised the Necessarian weapon and pointed it at the melee, I took in the situation at a glance. Our opponent was still cloaked, but was dodging Gazra’s superhumanly fast punches with ease. Gazra could go faster if he used his power, but that had tradeoffs.

Impuscaturi!” I yelled. Gazra dodged back, out of my firing line.

Unfortunately, our assailant understood Romanian, and dashed forward, trying to keep Gazra within melee range so that I couldn’t shoot. Before they closed the distance again, I fired, just a short burst.

The assistant leaped back, dodging the bullets that tore through the table I had been standing next to just a moment ago. Whether through buffs or a power, this person had incredible reflexes, and would have to be trapped before—

My eyes caught something inside the robe. Just briefly, as it fluttered with movement, but I saw it.

White skin. Not Caucasian, white.

“Gazra!” I yelled. “Înger! Ochii tăi!

With the charade exposed, the angel ripped off his cloak, revealing a muscular white androgynous body, every inch of his skin covered in glowing Hebrew script. I had never seen an angel with so much angelic script on their body, and briefly wondered why.

Briefly, because I was busy dodging behind my throne and squeezing my eyes shut.

Even facing the other way with my hands over closed eyes, the daybreak was so bright it hurt my eyes. It felt like staring directly into the sun, and any other vampire in the room would have been knocked unconscious by the sudden shock. Our sclavi would probably have been killed.

But Gazra wasn’t just any vampire.

The daybreak died as the angel cursed loudly in Hebrew. I got up and fired another short burst, enough to give the assassin pause and Gazra time to catch his breath.

The flow of the battle had changed. Gazra pressed the attack almost desperately, refusing to let the angel get out of reach. He sidestepped my bullets with ease and took advantage of the opening provided to punch the man in the face.

The angel stumbled, and then made the mistake of holding up his palm and shining a light in Gazra’s face. It was so bright that I couldn’t even look at it, and left a bright white afterimage across my vision from just seeing it for a split second.

Gazra didn’t react.

After all, he was blind now.

There was a boom, and I looked up to see that the angel had been thrown across the room, into one of the concrete pillars near the walls. Before he could recover, I unloaded the rest of my St. Euphemia at him. My aim was poor from his light, but it was almost impossible to miss at this range. Dozens of bullets tore into him and the pillar behind him, until he slumped to the ground like a wet rag.

“Gazra, check him.”

“His heart’s not beating,” he said, despite standing about twenty feet away. “Is he glowing?”

“No. Bring your eyes back.”

He grimaced. “It takes about an hour.”

I nodded. “Forgot.” I stepped down off the dais and to the corpse of our assailant, reloading as I went. “Call the nearest nightstalker. Should be Nya, two floors up.” Phlegethos was full of slaves, but still felt empty because there were barely a handful of masters. There were only a thousand true Belian nightstalkers—and most of them didn’t live here. “We’ll need a cleanup crew.”

“Understood.” He took his phone out, then frowned as he tried to remember where all the buttons were.

Smiling, I turned to the corpse. The angelic script on his skin was ruined in a lot of places, but I could still read much of it. It was a poem, which wasn’t unheard of, but it was a much longer one than usual. And I couldn’t find any detail on the angel’s Name or Caste. That was odd.

Wait… there was one line…

“’And with the dawn shall break the darkness…’” I read. “Gazra, what’s that from?”

He thought for a moment. “Mertion. The Platinum Heaven. It’s part of their motto.”

“…Raziel sent this one.”

Gazra frowned. “You sure? Wouldn’t Pistis Sophia be more likely? Raziel wouldn’t send just one assassin.”

“He didn’t. This was a scout.”

Gazra nodded. “He’ll be sending Evansheer next.”

“Probably. Might send a few more probes in first. Hopefully this one didn’t kill too many of our sclavi on his way in.” I leaned forward and sniffed the corpse. “Nothing really worth mentioning. Some angel brand soaps, a little bit of foundry smell…” I blinked, then sniffed closer. “Do you smell that?”

“I killed my sense of smell for a small strength boost. Why?”

I got up, stalked over to the door, and ripped it open.

The sclavi guards stood there, perfectly unharmed, staring at me blankly.

I growled and shut the door again. “The angel was coated in Belian pheromones. The sclavi thought he was an ally.”

“How did they get—”

“Doesn’t matter! What matters is that we need the sclavi sane again yesterday!” I stalked over to my throne and slammed my hand down on the intercom. “Chamberlain! Get me a cleanup crew and a meeting with the Dragon!” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I turned to Gazra and pointed angrily. “You! You’re going to Ishtar, and she’s going to talk to Bel! We are getting this fixed, right now.”

He swallowed. “It’s—it’s going to take at least a day or two to—”

“Then GET STARTED!

He ran out of the throne room at top speed.

I sighed, and cast my gaze around the room, looking for the flavor packets he had brought with him.

They had been on the table I had shot up.

Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 271)

Fierna is a whole lot of fun to write. Gazra’s power is complicated, and I didn’t want to do another major info dump right away, but it will become clear later.

Scene 252 – Discessum

DISCESSUM

DEREK

This was shaping up to be a weird day.

I wasn’t exactly close with Kelly. She and the retinue had always stayed in the back with Adam, away from the screamers, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her off the job.

I didn’t know much about her, but I hadn’t thought I needed to. Sure, her name was obviously fake, but she was an ex-Belian, so that wasn’t a surprise. The fixer on her arm was more than a little disturbing as well, but not too much. The device monitored her blood and pumped counteragents that neutralized the drugs in her system; while the chemical fixer was common, the device of the same name was only necessary if you had drug producing glands. I had always wondered why she hadn’t just had those glands removed, but had resolved not to think about it.

Then we got dragged in front of the Belians, and she had ripped off the fixer.

Now, she sat on the Obsidian Throne of Abriymoch, claiming to be Fierna, daughter of Belial the Lord of Secrets, Noble of the Fourth Crypt. She was naked except for a seductively draped fur-lined cloak, and lounged on the oversized throne as easily as if it were a seat by a pool.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” she proclaimed. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The right of blood was obvious—she had killed her way to the top. I was less certain about the shadow one. That was something about fear, or political skill, about how her reputation was broad and deep like a shadow, or something. Or maybe it was just about knowing lots of secrets. Belial had been the Lord of Secrets, after all.

This was too much, too fast; everyone knew Fierna was dead, and I couldn’t think of anything Kelly had ever done to make me suspect otherwise. If I said anything, asked any questions, it might be taken as a challenge, and despite my earlier bluster, Adam and I couldn’t take the whole damn domain by ourselves. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nobles, however, seemed to have some idea. One of them, the one with the long and forked tongue and the strangely bulbous joints, started speaking despite the fact that he was still kneeling on the ground. “I do not doubt Noble Fierna’s right to our culture,” he said, his voice a little quiet. “But I do doubt this woman’s claim that she is our lady.” His voice gained strength, and he rose to his feet. “She is just some random ‘sarian traitor. You can still see the scars of the fixer on her arm. In time, she will—”

Kelly’s hand snapped out, stiff and flat as a knife but as fast as lightning.

The Noble’s head fell off, and his body collapsed to the ground a moment later.

I recognized the hungry look in Kelly’s eyes. It was the naked bloodlust that I had seen on Elizabeth’s face too many times. In this case, I would assume it was the result of the drugs in her system. Psycho and buffout, particularly, caused such reactions as a side effect of their strength increases.

With visible difficulty, she wrestled the feelings down. “Gaziel was well aware of who I am,” she explained patiently, ignoring the horrified looks we were all giving her. All of us except the Nobles flanking her throne, that is. They kept their heads obediently bowed. “He sent Chamo to recruit me, and when I responded to that rudely, sent Inanna to punish me.”

“Kel—Honored Noble,” I said, correcting myself mid-sentence as I stepped forward. “Forgive me for being… confused.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “About what?”

About everything, but I didn’t say that. “About—”

I was interrupted by a tug on my leg.

Surprised, I looked down to see Alex, crying enough silent tears to fill a lake. The angel shook his head. “She can’t let us go,” he whispered. “Gazra will be on her side no matter what happens, but Balan and Bathym control the majority of the nightstalkers. Even with the sclavi, she can’t fight them all.”

“What are you saying?” I hissed back.

“Throw yourself on her mercy. It’s the only way she can save us.”

I frowned. I… was not fond of that idea. I was a paladin, technically a warlord, and more importantly, a Huntsman. I was not going to grovel before a drugged-up warlord, no matter who it was. I’d just have to—

“Apologies for the insolence, Honored Noble,” Laura said with a slightly stiff bow as she rose to her feet. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. “Knight Derek is a soldier, and not good with words.”

“Laura,” I hissed. “What are you doing—”

She shut me up with a glare.

Of course. I knew what she was doing—saving my ass.

“Speak, then, Highlander,” Kelly drawled. She definitely had that royal apathy down pat.

Laura winced at the nickname. “Please, Noble Fierna. That is the Composer’s name for me.”

The vampire nodded slowly. “Apologies, Dame Laura.” She extended her palm, as if offering us something. “Please, continue your defense. You have trespassed in my domain. Why should I allow you and yours to leave it alive?”

I kept my power at the ready, prepared to throw up a shield if things got messy. While the Nobles around the throne seemed content to stand around their warlord with heads bowed, the nightstalkers lining the rest of the room were less composed. Even if the slaves didn’t come into it, I wasn’t sure I could fight all of them at once if they decided to stop playing around.

Laura didn’t so much as blink. “We brought you home, Honored Noble. Allowing us to go home seems like a basic courtesy.”

Kelly smiled slightly, and I could see her fangs poking out of her mouth. She was enjoying this far too much. “Ah, but you did not intend to bring me home. You did, however, intend to trespass. To steal back more trespassers, in fact.”

“They were kidnapped, not trespassing.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a smirk. She turned to one of the lesser vampires lining the hall. “Kiara, I believe? Please tell me what happened when you encountered the angel and the changeling at Avernus.”

The girl looked hesitant, and bit her lip—a bad idea, considering her fangs. “We, uh, we tried to talk to them. And they attacked us. I think it might be on video, maybe, but I’m not sure if they—”

“That’s quite enough, dear, thank you,” Kelly interrupted with a surprising amount of warmth. Kiara seemed to agree; she looked like she didn’t know how to react to a Belian Noble being nice.

I tapped Laura on the shoulder. She looked me in the eye, frowning, before she understood what I was trying to say. She nodded and turned back to Kelly. “What do you want for them?” she asked evenly.

Them?” the newborn… reborn Noble laughed. “You are my prisoners just as much as the angel and the giant, dear children.” She leaned forward, that fur cloak of hers not quite slipping off her shoulders. “I have plans for you, and you still have not given me a good reason to release you.”

There was a click from behind her, and a massive shotgun poked her in the ear.

“I’ve got one,” Adam said levelly, his mouth set into a grim line that matched his eyes. “You should have hidden my guns farther away. Now let everyone go, and you get to keep your stupid kingdom of slaves.”

Kelly didn’t seemed perturbed by the Necessarian Saint George—almost certainly loaded with a god slayer—pointed at her skull. “Oh, you clever little psychopath. You are good. I didn’t even notice you move.”

“Sociopath, technically,” was his only response.

Some shadow of the old Corporal Sanguinas returned as she shrugged. “Well, those two terms have become so muddled over the years that it’s hard to tell when and where they apply. The medical community doesn’t even use them anymore, they’ve become too diluted—”

One of the Nobles, the one with a soft and gentle face sharply at odds with his power and position, cleared his throat. His boss turned to him with a frown, and he gave her a look I couldn’t interpret.

She definitely understood it, though, as she sighed and turned her attention back to Laura. “I tire of this game. Honored Paragon, you may leave with your lover and your pet murderer.” It took me a second to realize the ‘lover’ part referred to me; I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “The angel, the giant, the changeling, and the kemo all stay with me.”

“And what of Akane?” Laura demanded, eyes narrow. “Gaziel said she was under guard in your hospital. What will happen to her?”

Kelly waved her hand blithely. “What do I care? It’s too much effort to go collect her. She stays.”

Laura’s hand went to her necklace, but she managed to remain calm. “She is the magister of the kensei. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The samurai warriors with super speed? Some are already calling her kenkami.”

“Sword-god,” Kelly translated with a chuckle. “Cute. But what of it?”

“If you don’t release her, they will come for you,” Laura said.

“And if you don’t release the others, we will come back,” I added, stepping up next to Laura.

I heard a crack from Kelly’s direction. Someone had handed her a glass of wine at some point, a deceptively delicate goblet that was actually a thick and durable chunk of carved crystal, designed for warlords. She had still managed to put a large crack in it, from which black wine was now leaking.

Another slave stepped up and replaced the damaged glass with a new, full one. Kelly took it without a word, her narrow black nighteyes focused solely on me.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said quietly, her voice low and dangerous like the first rumblings of an earthquake. “You are an annoying one, aren’t you? How is it, Honored Paragon, that you manage to find all sorts of warlords and future magisters by just stumbling through life? How is it that a random boy from South Central manages to attract the attention of Elizabeth Greene herself?”

It seemed best not to answer.

She sniffed. “No matter. However you do it, you do have a surprising number of allies. Even if the Cripple doesn’t side with you, there are many others who would.” She made a face. “I might even have to talk with Dracul again… ugh.”

Laura and I remained silent. Adam’s Saint George remained level, though I knew he’d be straining to keep it that way. If Kelly decided to act like a Belian after all, to attack without thought of the consequences, Adam likely wouldn’t be able to kill her.

But she didn’t.

“Gazra,” she ordered. “Fetch Ogrémoch, tell him to check on the kenkami’s progress. If she’s well enough to leave, allow her to. If not, throw her out. She is no longer welcome in Phlegethos.”

The pretty-faced vampire from earlier bowed low and left.

“Everyone else, out. Everyone except for our guests.” The two remaining Nobles stepped quickly, walking down the aisle past the still-startled nightstalkers, but the rest were more hesitant. Kelly waved her hand impatiently. “Everyone. That includes the sclavi. OUT!”

This last was a sudden shout loud enough to hurt my ears, and enough to make the rest of the vampires hop to action, fleeing from the royal audience chamber as fast as their legs would carry them.

Once they were gone and the thick concrete doors closed behind them, the Noble pointed at poor George, still nailed to the wall. “I suggest someone help the giant down. His buffs are impressive, but that must still be painful.”

‘The giant.’ Not George or even ‘the ogre.’ She was still acting like Fierna.

But we had little choice. Jarasax and I—the changeling had been faking unconsciousness for most of the conversation—stepped over to the wall and started pulling stakes out of George’s limbs, carefully removing him from his position, spread-eagled on the wall like some grisly trophy.

It took both of us to catch him, and even then he was too heavy for us to keep upright. It was more like we kept him from dropping too quickly. He still fell to his knees, but at least slow enough that they didn’t crack on the hard concrete floor.

He was definitely in a lot of pain, but Kelly was right. He was made of stern stuff, and his wounds weren’t bleeding as much as they should. He couldn’t fight, but he should be able to walk out of here with help. Adam came over to help, apparently realizing he wasn’t doing much good covering the warlord.

“Is that silly angel still crying?” Kelly asked in a bored drawl.

I turned to see Alex, still curled on the floor in the fetal position, silently weeping. Laura ran her hand through his hair, whispering something that didn’t seem to have any effect. Wincing, she turned to the throne. “Yes. I’m not sure why. He might be in shock.”

“Bah,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “He just wants a fight. I’ll kick him around a few times and he’ll leave.”

I blinked. How did she come to that conclusion? This was the problem with dealing with drug-addled minds. “What? No! You can’t do that!”

“I’m doing him a favor.”

“No, I mean—”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Duels shouldn’t have witnesses. Leave.”

I tried to step forward, ready to pound something like sense into her, but George collapsed again the second I let him go. Cursing, I glanced between the giant and the angel, before Laura sidled up beside me.

“We can come back,” she whispered. “Try and talk her down. But George needs to be moved.”

Frustrated but not seeing another choice, I nodded. I slipped under George’s arm again, the three of us pulling his massive bulk towards the doors, which Laura opened as we reached them. She was careful not to close them all the way behind us, leaving them open just a crack.

We put George down on a table we found maybe ten or twenty yards down the tapestry-lined corridor, and left Adam and Jarasax to tend to him. Laura and I returned to the royal audience chamber to save Alex. Laura peeked through the crack in the door… before waving me over, motioning me to silence.

What I saw was not what I expected.

Alex sat up on the floor just a few feet from the door, with Kelly in front of him, carefully wiping the long tracks of moisture from his ivory cheeks.

“Fi,” the angel whispered, new tears welling up already. “C’mon, don’t… don’t do this… ”

The vampire smiled sadly, all traces of her previous arrogance and apathy gone. “It is done.”

“Then… I’ll stay! I’ll stay with you! I can—I can—”

She interrupted him with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Don’t you dare,” she said, her voice quiet and filled with barely restrained tears. “You know how much effort Mom went to in order to keep you out of Dad’s clutches. Don’t throw that all away now.”

“But you’re—”

Kelly placed a finger on his lips, still smiling that sad smile. “No. I am a vampire, and you are an angel. That is the end of our story, dear heart.” Tears started to well up in her own eyes, but she blinked them away. “But—but I would like to hear it.”

Alex frowned, not even bothering to hide the tears running down his cheeks again. “H-hear what?”

“My name,” she whispered. “My real name. The one Mom gave me.” She was blinking rapidly, trying and failing to keep the tears from coming. “You’re the last one alive who knows it, and I just want to—”

Now it was the angel’s turn to comfort the vampire. He pulled her close in an embrace. “Shh… shh, it’s all right. I promise, everything is going to be all right.”

Then he whispered something in her ear, too quietly for the rest of us to hear.

Kelly laughed, a sorrowful giggle full of heartbreak, and hugged the angel closer. “Thank you, Alex.” Then she smiled. “I mean… Ilarion Marinov.”

Alex laughed, sniffing away his tears. “You know I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know Ill, I know.”

The vampire and the angel touched their foreheads together, crying softly and quietly.

I glanced at Laura, giving her a questioning look. She looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, but still gave me a glare. The message was clear: Just be quiet and give them their space.

“I need you to be strong, little one,” Kelly said, not moving her forehead from Alex’s own. “Stronger even than your days at the orphanage.”

Alex cried some more, but managed a smile. “The orphanage wasn’t so bad, you know?”

“I know Ill, I know.” She closed her eyes. “But this… this will be.” She took a deep breath. “They’ll be coming for you soon. You and anyone else associated with me. All four of you need to be pull together and protect each other, but they’ll be looking to you for help.”

“Sax—”

“Sax is not a leader, and has no interest in becoming one. If you let him lead, he’ll just follow whatever his mother tells him to do. You have to take over, little one. You can’t come to me, asking for help. Not this time.”

Alex nodded. “The angels will be coming after you. Once we fight off the vampires, I can talk to them. Zaphkiel can—”

“Oh, dear heart,” she said quietly, not opening her eyes. “The angels will be coming after you, too.”

Alex stared in mute horror, before nodding slowly. “I… I suppose you’re right.” He closed his eyes. “They won’t be able to do anything overt, but Pistis Sophia will send her best. Her Initiates at least, and maybe even Drusulai himself.” He blinked back tears again. “But you will have to deal with Raziel, and almost certainly Evansheer.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, finally opening her eyes again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as well, but she ignored them. “I’ll be fine. Zaebos and Zapan have done their jobs too well. We have many, many sclavi to use in a fight. Once I let them study my toys a little, we may even be able to gives the slaves back their sanity.”

“But Fi—”

She didn’t let him even start. “But that is all my problem,” she said firmly, her marble-black eyes strong. “This is my culture, Honored Daybreaker. My inheritance, the only gift I ever received from that bastard father. I will deal with it. Alone.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

“Yes. I do.” She kissed his forehead again. “Stick close to Huntsman and Medina. Those two are going to do good work.” She looked him up and down. “Are you strong enough? I don’t want this to kill you.”

He dried his tears and nodded. “Ready and waiting, Noble Fierna.”

She shook her head. “I hate that name.” She sighed and stood. “Incoming.”

I pulled Laura out of the way a split second before Alex was thrown through the doors, slamming them open with a boom and crashing into the back wall like a cannon.

Kelly—no, Fierna—strode out of the throne room, eyes wild, laughing with mad bloodlust. “Is that all the angels of Necessarius have to offer? I’ve fought dumpster dogs with more spirit in them!”

Her voice echoed in the concrete corridor, and at the far end I could see several nightstalkers and their sclavi watching the fight with interest. George, Adam, and Jarasax seemed to have gotten out of the way already.

The Noble strode up to the angel, picked him up casually with one hand, and tossed him a dozen yards down the corridor, where he skidded to a stop at the feet of the other vampires. “This one is boring. Send him away with the others.”

Her minions moved quickly to obey, picking the broken angel up roughly and hauling him down a corridor I knew led to the front doors of the domain. Fierna gave one last barking laugh at the sight, then turned back to her throne room.

And froze at the sight of us, standing silently next to the double doors.

Several emotions warred on her face. Surprise, rage, disgust…

Before finally settling on something like resignation.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of him, Honored Paragon,” she whispered. She kept her face neutral. “Consider it an official request—from one warlord to another.”

I nodded, once.

She nodded in turn. “Thank you.” Her grip on my shoulder tightened, and then she flung me down the corridor as well, hard enough to fly almost to the corner. It was a dangerous throw, and if I had hit a wall it could have killed me, but she was careful. Landing hurt, but I was good at taking falls.

“Take your boyfriend and leave, baseline!” Fierna yelled at Laura as she stalked back towards her throne. “I have better things to do with my time than play with newborn warlords with over-inflated egos!”

Behind the scenes (scene 262)

I’m honestly surprised this came out as well as it did, but I like it.

This isn’t quite the end of Kelly’s arc, but we’re definitely past the climax.

Scene 261 – Quod Primogenita Vendidisset

QUOD PRIMOGENITA VENDIDISSET

FIERNA

I am Fierna.

I am power.

For years, I shackled myself. Begged that cripple who thought himself a warlord to chain me, to weaken and hobble me. For years, that damned device cursed me, held me back, denied me what was mine by right.

Even now, I could feel it. Years of poison did not fade in moments. But oh… it was fading. Burning away like ice before a flame. With every moment, my power grew. With every moment, what was mine slowly returned.

I was thrown roughly against the cold stone floor.

“My sclavi found this one with the others,” a female voice said.

“She looks like a ghoul worked her over. Did she resist?”

“No. The sclavi were simply not careful when they carried her here.”

Old instincts were surfacing, like a blade slowly being sharpened after disuse. For the moment, I merely peered around myself, trying to determine where I was. At the moment, my strength was not fully returned, and it was all I could do.

But my blood was quickening. My power would come to me soon enough.

There were many shivering sclavi, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, guarding the entrances and simply acting as servants for the well-dressed vampires scattered around. There were several baselines, bound together in chains. They were unconscious, and irrelevant. There was a giant, pinned to the wall with spikes. Also irrelevant.

And there was an angel, staring at me with wide eyes from his spot on the floor just a few feet away. He was mouthing words, but what, I couldn’t say. I peered closer, trying to divine his meaning, but had little luck.

He seemed to be saying ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Oh good, the baselines are waking up.”

“What do we do with the vampire?”

“We’ll get to her in a moment.”

Strong hands grabbed me and dragged me to the rear of the room, where I could be stored until they were done with whatever minor thing they were doing.

“You there, baseline. What’s your name? What made you think attacking Phlegethos was a good idea?”

Phlegethos. I knew that name. The Heart of Darkness, the Seat of Despair. Sitting in Northwest Middle, it was the last spark of power of an old, dying culture, waiting for a lord that was dead and gone.

I knew Phlegethos. I knew it.

I had recovered enough to crack open my eyes and get a better look around the room. The floor was cold concrete, but the walls were lined with tapestries and paintings. There were a few lights in the ceiling, barely more than dying candles, dim enough to give baselines the vaguest impression of what was happening, but bright as day to vampire eyes.

The room itself was wide and long, large enough to park five or ten cars. It was clearly an audience chamber, a gesture of the ruler’s might and abilities. The effect was undercut by the fact that the throne at the end of the blood-red carpet was empty.

Four vampires sat on short chairs flanking that throne, a massive chair-shaped edifice of blackest obsidian. All four were distinct in their suspicious lack of distinction; they all had ivory skin and raven-black hair, fitting the vampire definition of beauty. They would have more unique toys hidden under those loose robes of theirs.

There were a scattering of other vampires in the room, in addition to the dozens of sclavi. The slaves, of course, were mostly dull-eyed with the drugs used to keep them under control, but the nightstalkers were sharp and dangerous.

“I am Derek Huntsman, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” a strong male voice called out. “And this man next to me is Adam Anders.”

The effect of the baseline’s words was electric. All the nightstalkers recoiled away from the blond man standing before them with his hands bound, and even more when his bland little friend struggled to his feet as well.

I felt like I should know who these two were. It was tickling at the back of my mind, but the power stirring in my body made it hard to think. Nights, it made it hard to do anything but just revel in my own strength. Why had I ever given this up? Why had I ever thought that would be a good idea?

Everyone in the audience chamber was staring at the blond and his friend, ignoring everyone else in the room, including the other two baselines still on the ground.

Everyone, that is, except for the angel. He was still mouthing words at me, now with tears dripping down his cheeks. ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Huntsman,” one of the Nobles flanking the throne, Bathym, hissed as he leaned forward, his black talons hidden in his robes. “It is… unfortunate that you are here. But the laws of Necessarius are clear. You broke into our domain. They will not rescue you from our wrath.”

“You kidnapped several ‘sarians. They will demand compensation for that.”

Bathym grinned in that annoying way he had, showing his fangs poking over his lower lip, but nothing else. “That is too bad, Huntsman. But the Belians remain a rich culture. We have more than enough money to pay retribution for a self-defense case.”

The baseline shrugged. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to fight our way out of here.”

Bathym laughed loudly at that, though no one else so much as cracked a smile. “Oh, you are a confident one, Honored Paragon. But we are hardly helpless.” His black eyes turned hard. “We know what you are capable of. You are vastly outnumbered, and your clay is unarmed. Not to mention you must keep your friends safe. You are not getting out of this alive. You have no trump card.”

“Well, there is me.”

My power had not returned to me. Not completely. It would take hours, perhaps even days, before all traces of that vile chemical was purged from my system.

But I did not need physical power to deal with these wretches.

“Go back to sleep, nightstalker,” Balan, the warlord with the massive eyebrows and the tufted beard, said wearily. “You will be dealt with in a moment.”

I ignored him, and instead took off my clothes.

It wasn’t hard. My armor was missing—most likely taken—and the underclothes were ripped and torn in places. A single hard yank was enough to remove my shirt, and my pants weren’t much more difficult.

Everyone in the room stared at me. Not in lust, either. Just in sheer confusion.

“…someone get this girl out of here,” Gaziel said, waving his hand lazily in such a way that the bulbous, bony joints of his wrists were seen under his robe, and I could see the hint of his long, purple-red forked tongue in his mouth. “Sclavi. Scoateți-o.”

Instead of following his orders, one of the sclavi quietly stepped up from behind me, dressing me in a long, fur-lined cloak that went right over my naked body. There was no tie around the waist, but it was expertly tailored to my physique, and carefully clung to my body to hide both my breasts and groin.

I smiled. “Sclavi. Îngenuncheze.”

And the slaves knelt before me.

Now the Nobles and nightstalkers jumped back in fright, understanding exactly what they were dealing with. No, not yet. I saw the looks in their eyes—they were afraid of my power to control their sclavi, but they didn’t understand why.

They didn’t recognize me yet.

I strode through the rows of kneeling vampires, past the crying angel still on the floor, ignoring the baselines who were staring at me, as well as the Belians who had no idea what was going on.

I strode towards the obsidian throne, with no one to stop me.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Gazra looked from me to the throne.

Then he knelt.

Balan and Bathym followed suit a moment later, and Gaziel, looking between his three colleagues, knew he had no other choice but to do the same. I noted his hesitation, but kept my lips shut for the moment.

I turned to see the confused faces of the rest of the vampires, the nightstalkers who had joined after I had left. They saw what their Nobles were doing, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand it. They had no more idea what was happening than the baselines we had captured or the giant stapled to the wall.

The angel knew, though. He was still crying, still begging me to stop.

Oh, dear, sweet Alex. You knew this was how it was going to end.

“…Kelly?” Derek asked slowly. “What—”

“Drakela Sanguinas never existed,” I explained, as if to a child. “She was a broken mask worn to interact with others.” I met the Paragon’s wary gaze with a firm one of my own, knowing full well what I was doing.

“I am Fierna,” I said calmly. “Daughter of Belial, heir to the Throne of Abriymoch, the Fourth Black Crypt Phlegethos, and all the secrets of my mother, Naome the Golden.”

I sat in the throne, the black obsidian seat too large for me—it had been designed for my father, after all, who was almost eight feet tall.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” I said, my voice echoing throughout the chamber. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The power in my veins sang. It felt good to be home

The only problem was my conscience screaming in the back of my skull.

Behind the Scenes (scene 261)

I’ve been waiting for this one for a very, very long time. Still not sure if I should move it to later.

Scene 260 – Oppugnatio

OPPUGNATIO

ADAM

It was Thursday night, shortly after dusk. November 29th. Why did that feel important?

“So we’re raiding the domain of a bunch of drugged-up vampires,” I said.

Laura didn’t even look at me. “The slaves aren’t the problem. The nightstalkers, the ones who still have their minds, are the issue.”

“But they’re not as strong as the sclavi,” Kelly said as she strode up to the edge of the roof next to us. She observed the skyscraper across the street with a critical eye. Phlegethos was the opposite of the angel domains in a lot of ways; while the Heavens were covered in light reflected and refracted a million times over, the Black Crypt was completely, utterly dark. Even at this distance, I couldn’t use my phone; the vampires had a ‘dark zone’ set up, which was sort of a specialized EMP field for taking out lights. It just had an annoying habit of killing most other electronics as well.

Even without the conspicuous darkness, the vampire domain would still be easy to spot. Two buildings next to each other were joined by walkways and paths. The walls were lined with spikes and blades, which I suspected were sharp enough to cut any kemo stupid enough to try to climb them. There were a few outcroppings here and there, manned by turrets that slowly scanned the area. Even the glass was black and bulletproof.

“I have ways of neutralizing the sclavi,” Kelly said, apparently unconcerned with the view before us. “But I’m not sure if it will work more than once or twice, so I’ll save it for an emergency. In the meantime, aim for the leaders, and the rest will scatter.”

“We still need to get in. Unless you’re suggesting walking in the front door?”

The ex-Belian shrugged. “They wouldn’t expect it, that’s for sure. But we need a better plan.”

“Roof?” Derek suggested. He nodded at Kat and Robyn. “We’ve got two fliers.”

“I can’t carry more than two people,” Robyn said.

“And Kat can’t carry anyone,” Laura said. “We can’t have Robyn make three trips; we’ll be spotted.” She frowned, then shook her head. “But it’s still a good idea. Robyn, go high. Really high. See what the security looks like on the roof.”

Robyn nodded and shot off like an arrow from a bow, likely more than happy to have a mission that didn’t involve getting in firing range of anyone. In a moment, she was out of sight, disappeared into the night sky.

“I still feel like we should have done this during the day,” I said. “Night gives them too many advantages.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” Laura said, still not looking at me. “Considering how clingy Ishtar was and how far Phlegethos is from Jealous Heart, we were lucky. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”

“She’s always been clingy,” Kelly said. “The drugs aren’t helping.”

Kelly hadn’t gone into Jealous Heart with us. Considering how bad her ex-girlfriend was, I really couldn’t blame her. Ishtar was nice, even friendly, but she was still a Belian, and still crazy. Not fey crazy, but pretty out there.

I was getting distracted. We had more important things to worry about.

Derek’s phone beeped. He flipped it open and turned it to speaker mode. “Robyn?”

“I’m here,” her voice sounded out of the speaker. “The roof isn’t too heavily guarded, but I’d prefer not to test it. Three nightstalkers, all clear-headed, as far as I can tell. We wouldn’t be able to get them all before they called for backup.”

“Well that’s out,” I said. “Are there any sewers?”

“None big enough to crawl in through,” MC said, cutting into the conversation without missing a beat.

I sighed. “Of course not. Well, maybe a frontal assault is our only option. “Flynn—” He turned away from Phlegethos, then frowned. “Wait, where’s Flynn? Wasn’t he with us a minute ago?”

“I sent him back to NHQ to watch over the kensei,” Akane said without blinking.

I sighed again. Losing one of our main heavy-hitters was going to make this more difficult than it needed to be. “Okay, fine, whatever. Uh, then Akane, you’ll be on point, Derek you’re a bit behind, then the rest of us will take the rear, with Robyn and Laura staying out of it—”

“You’re missing something important,” Laura interrupted. “MC, any chance you have a list of the powers the Belians might have at their command? The slaves aren’t as important; focus on the nightstalkers.”

“Sorry, but they weren’t exactly interested in registering with Necessarius.”

“Great.”

“Vampires tend to gravitate towards powers of darkness and blood, though, if that helps.”

“A little,” Laura admitted. “Though it would probably help more if we had an angel.”

“I can go find one,” Robyn said through Derek’s phone. “That Adele Lucifer, maybe?”

“No, she’s busy.”

Everyone’s busy,” I said. “Including us. We shouldn’t be here.”

Kelly glared at me. “Are you saying we should abandon friends to slavers?”

“No, I’m saying we should try to buy them back the ‘sarian way.”

But she shook her head. “Won’t work. If they were grabbed at random, maybe, but we’re pretty sure that they were targeted specifically. Calling and offering money will just make them accelerate their plans.”

“Why can’t anything be easy?” I shook my head. “I swear, things were simpler when the whole damn city was screaming.”

“A graveyard is simple too,” Kelly said. “That doesn’t mean you should make more of them.” She sighed. “But in this case, I think ‘simple’ might be our only option. There are no secret side entrances or anything, no other way into the domain besides the roof and the front door.”

Kat signed something.

“That still requires that Miss Clarke kill two guards as fast as possible,” Kelly reminded her. “You’re not going to be able to take out more than one before they call for help. Not an option.”

“Robyn could carry me up there, then Kat snipes one while I get the other two,” I said.

“Better,” Laura cut in before Kelly could speak. “But it still has problems. The roof is likely covered in cameras, and no one can get close enough to drop a transceiver on one before being seen.”

“If we go in from above—”

“You’ll have to start from high above. Do you have some kind of gas mask?”

MC snorted, a strange sound to hear from a phone. “We can get him a damn gas mask, no problem. The cameras, though… I think some of them are pointing up. I’m not sure that there’s any angle of approach where you won’t be spotted.”

“The roof is still a better option,” I said. “Even if reinforcements come.”

“Adam,” Derek said firmly. “Most of us can’t fly. You want to be trapped on a roof with no way out but a sheer drop to the pavement?”

“No, he has a point,” Laura murmured, half to herself. “It’s not designed to withstand any kind of siege; it’s out of reach of all other buildings, and they wouldn’t have had time to revamp it, even if they realized that fliers could come in that way.”

I tried not to look smug.

Apparently it didn’t work. “Wipe that grin off your face,” Kelly snapped. “This plan should work, but it’s still Plan B. Plan A is getting in undetected. Miss Clarke. Do you see any angle where you can get next to a camera and drop a node on it?”

“Uh… maybe. I think the north—”

I heard the metallic click of a gun behind us.

I pulled out my Sica as fast as humanly possible, spinning towards the sound.

Derek, seeing my panicked reaction, immediately covered us in a glowing blue force field, an entire globe covering us from every angle. Not a second too soon, either—bullets started bouncing off it almost before he finished making it.

Vampires were stalking onto the rooftop, vampires with the vacant stares that only the heavily drugged could manage. They were still well-armed, though, and I knew better than to underestimate a couple dozen men armed with machine guns.

“How long can you hold the shield?” I muttered.

“Not long,” he whispered back. “I don’t want to dissolve the back side, in case they try to snipe us from Phlegethos.”

I looked back towards the Belian domain, and realized he was right. If they had found us here, they could have already called the men on the rooftop and requested support. Give one of them a sniper rifle—or even a basic infantry rifle with a decent scope—and we were screwed.

Then another Belian strode onto the roof.

This one clearly wasn’t drugged—at least not to the extent of the slaves. Her black eyes were clear, her stride straight and strong. She walked right up to Derek’s shield, and smiled as she traced the force field with a long black talon.

“A bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

Derek was visibly sweating. “No.”

“Hm. Of course. Derek Huntsman, I presume?” The girl smiled, baring sharp fangs. “The first Paladin, the first Paragon, first in the fight against the evil Composer.” I wasn’t enjoying her mocking tone, but she just chuckled at our annoyance. “You all think you’re so clever. As if the rest of us don’t know how to deal with powers now.”

“Akane,” Derek hissed.

The shield blinked briefly, just long enough for his bodyguard to run out at superspeed, slashing at the Belian with a knife.

Next thing I knew, she was slammed against the wall on the other side of the roof. A moment later, she fell to the ground, leaving behind a massive crack in the concrete wall. She didn’t move.

That was a clever trick,” the nightstalker said in a patronizing tone. “Very clever indeed. Even without a sword, the kenkami is dangerous enough that I’m sure there are very few people in the city who would survive. Even with my superspeed and judo training, it was very difficult.” She grinned again. “Thanks for that warning.”

I closed my eyes. Dammit, Derek.

“Well, I think it’s past time to take you all in, don’t you think?” the woman continued. “After all, your friends are already inside. The angel and the changeling, that is.” Her eyes twinkled like black stars. “We expected you ages ago.”

“That’s why you took them?” Laura asked thickly. “Bait?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The vampire shrugged. “How should I know? I just follow orders.”

Derek swallowed. “If I drop the shield, do I have your word that no one will be harmed?”

Derek,” Laura hissed.

He ignored her. “Well?”

The Belian placed her hand on her chest. “On my honor, you will all be escorted to Phlegethos safely.”

Derek nodded slowly. “Adam, everyone, drop your guns.”

I stared at him. “You can’t—”

Drop it.”

Gritting my teeth, I slowly did as ordered. I heard a clatter as the others did the same.

The shield faded a moment later.

“Excellent,” the woman said. She clapped her hands, and the slaves moved forward to surround us more totally. “We’ll have to keep the guns pointed at you the whole time; security precaution, I’m sure you understand. We—” She frowned. “What’s she doing?”

We all turned—

Laura was the one who figured it out first. “No, don’t—”

With a scream, Kelly ripped the device off her arm, the needles taking a significant amount of her skin with them. What was left behind was little more than a bloody, ruined mess, with white bone showing through in places.

One of the slaves bashed her over the head with a rifle. She fell like a sack of potatoes.

“Idiot,” our captor muttered. “Come. The Nobles will wish to speak with you all.”

Behind the scenes (scene 260)

It’s hard to describe exactly what is wrong with the Belian sclavi. They’re not robots, and they’re not zombies; they retain their minds, in theory, and can take action on their own initiative. But they’re barely aware of their surroundings, and extremely susceptible to orders according to their programming.

Scene 91 – Praeteritae

PRAETERITAE

KELLY

Alex ticked the names off on his fingers. “Barachiel, the Messenger. Domiel, the Mercy-Bringer. Erathoal the Seer, Pistis Sophia the Ascetic, Raziel the Crusader, and Sealtiel the Defender. And last is Zaphkiel, the Watcher.” He wiggled his fingers. “Those are the seven Arch-Saints. I’m not sure where you’re confused.”

George rubbed his forehead and lay back in the van. “Titan’s testes…I’m not an angel, and I’m not a vampire. Why would I care about your warlords?”

“Because it’s important?” The angel shook his head. “Look, not being to name all of them and their respective Heavens is understandable. But how could you ever mistake Lilith for one of them?”

“She doesn’t like being called that,” Sax noted absently from the driver’s seat.

I rolled my eyes. “She doesn’t like being called anything, it seems.”

“That’s not what I meant,” the giant insisted. “I thought she was a former angel. A fallen angel, you know? I wasn’t really paying attention back when everything was starting, so…” he shrugged. “I’m still a little behind the times.”

I frowned. “I thought you were at Bloody Thirteen.”

The giant shuddered, making the entire van tremble. “Don’t remind me of that, please.” He waved his hand. “But at the time, it seemed like just a new gang that was a bit crazier than usual. And besides, I wasn’t even with Necessarius back then. I was just a minor member of the Kongeegen party, working with the man who became Odin.”

Alex cocked his head to the side. “I thought you were more of an Iluvatar.”

“Sure, now. But the Kongs used to sound like a good idea.”

Well, this was getting interesting. “You know Odin?”

“Barely. Knew his sons a little better, but not by much. I never even talked to him after he became a giant. I got the package and everything, but I kinda went off on my own.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding. “Gordok and all that, you mentioned…” I trailed off.

The van was surrounded by Belians.

How had we not seen them walk up?

It was high noon, but none of them were wearing daygoggles. They were all wincing at least a little, and were probably completely blinded by the sun. A normal vampire can adapt to even bright light over time, although they’ll still have headaches, but Belians had it worse. A lot of the drugs they took increased their light sensitivity.

Sax glanced around very carefully, trying not to move anything but his eyes. “I count six out front. Alex?”

“Six more in the back. We might be able to handle twelve blind chem-heads.”

“There will be six more, watching at a distance,” I said slowly, resisting the urge to scratch my fixer. “Probably armed with the remotes to the bombs these ones are carrying.”

“Titans…” George cursed. “They’re suicide bombers?”

“Depends on your definition. Suicide bombers usually know they have a bomb strapped to their chest. These guys probably didn’t even notice.” It was a popular tactic of the Belian warlords. Since their underlings were hooked on chems, that meant they were stupid and easily replaceable. Just kidnap some poor bastard off the street, give him a few chem-producing glands, and he’d be yours forever.

Alex glanced at me. We both knew what they wanted. Sax would too, but he still wouldn’t turn his head, in case it set them off.

“Once they’re distracted, drive off,” I ordered the changeling. “I’ll catch up.”

He grimaced. “No. They’ll—”

“They’ll do nothing.” I got out of the van and walked up to the first Belian.

She was a thin little slip of a girl, though I couldn’t tell if that was a side effect of the drugs or if it was something more natural. Other than the nighteyes and the fangs, she seemed normal. I did notice that blood stained her teeth, probably from biting her tongue or lips. Clearly, this was a newly-made vampire.

“Take me to your Noble,” I ordered, without showing any hesitation on my face.

The girl swayed a little, then nodded, and slowly turned around and headed away from the van. I was pleased to see the others following at a similar pace, freeing my friends.

I was still careful not to provoke the Belians. They might not be violent at the moment, but if I riled their blood, they’d tear me to pieces.

It only took a few minutes for them to lead me to our destination. It was an abandoned skyscraper, slated to be renovated tomorrow. Right now, however, it was completely empty, stripped down to the studs and concrete. I could see from one end to the other, since even the walls were gone. It looked like nothing so much as an empty parking garage.

A man sat in the very center of the first floor, far from any of the open windows, waiting patiently for his minions to bring me to him. He appeared as a white-haired middle-aged man, though it was impossible to determine his true age. He had blood-red skin, darkening to blue on his clawed hands, and wore loose black clothes with a high stand-up collar.

He smiled as I approached, standing to greet me. “Hello, hello…Kelly, is it?” His voice was smooth as silk, and only had the slightest trace of an accent.

I scowled. “No games, Chamo.”

He tutted softly and wagged a finger back and forth. “Don’t be so rude, my cel mic. You changed your name. I was just being polite.”

I hated his little pet names. My mother had been the only one allowed to call me cel mic. But I could endure his attentions for however long it took for the others to escape. “Let’s get down to the point. Why are you here?”

He sat down again with a sigh, wincing almost imperceptibly at the cheap folding chair he was using. “Noapte, you have no sense of decorum. Fine, right to the point.” He spread his hands wide. “Phlegethos is dying. With Belial dead, the Throne of Abriymoch is empty, and we cannot afford to have anyone fighting over it. Honored Naome is gone, suspected to be dead as well.”

I narrowed my eyes. “This has nothing to do with me, legate.”

He frowned. “Please, do not be obtuse. Your defection to Necessarius does not change who you are. We need every able fang we can find—and you are ever so able.”

“You don’t need me,” I insisted calmly. I indicated the Belians surrounding us. “You clearly have enough men. The court chemists are doing their job well enough.”

The vampire snorted in derision. “Men? These are not men, and you know it. They are sclavi, mindless slaves, nothing more. Zeabos and Zapan are…” he rubbed his forehead. “They are doing their best. But there is only one person who has ever been able to enjoy the benefits of both the physical chems and the mental ones at the same time.” His marble-black eyes met my own. “You.”

And things began to click into place once more. “You want a lab rat. I should have known.”

To my surprise, he waved his hand angrily. “Hardly, hardly. A list of your toys should be enough; we haven’t been able to find it at the domain, but at the very least the Nobles thought you might remember.”

“My mother had a copy. But—”

“Yes, it was likely destroyed in the Shendilavri Retaliation, I know. But all that is secondary.” He was starting to get a desperate look in his eyes, and it took a conscious effort of will to keep from taking a step back. “But even as a symbol…even as nothing more than a champion, you would be nepreţuit. Priceless, invaluable.”

“I’m not coming back. Period. Ask my mother if you want to know how she pulled off the trick. I sure as hell don’t know.”

Chamo narrowed his black eyes, but it would take more than that to intimidate me. I didn’t care if he commanded most of the subculture’s forces; I had never followed his orders.

He seemed to realize that at the same time I did, and instead of trying to cow me into submission, snapped his fingers.

His slaves strode forward, intent on capturing me, but I didn’t bother trying to flee.

I didn’t need to.

“Fii încă.”

All twelve of the drug-addled men and women stopped instantly at my command. They stood patiently, awaiting new orders.

Chamo, of course, wasn’t inclined to wait. He scowled and barked out a command of his own. “Sclavii! Prinde-o!”

His underlings didn’t move. They stood still as statues, obeying my order to the letter.

Chamo was sweating now, I could smell it. He was doing a good job of keeping it off his face, but that didn’t mean much against a nose like mine.

“Intraţi în formarea luptă,” I ordered. “Defensiv model, centrat pe mine.”

Again, they obeyed without hesitation, forming a screen between me and the increasingly terrified legate.

I managed to resist grinning at him, but only barely. Instead, I just raised an eyebrow. “Look, I can understand why you’re still using my mother’s behavior modification protocols. But at the very least, you should have sprung for a good pheromone buff.” I probably still would have been able to wrest them from his control, but it would have been harder.

“I will keep that in mind for the future,” he said slowly. I could hear his teeth grinding as he managed to keep himself from saying something stupid. He wasn’t a complete moron—far from it. He was a military genius, he just wasn’t used to fighting someone like me. He would not make a mistake like this again.

“You are going to give the warlords a message,” I explained patiently. “You are going to tell Balan, Bathym, Gaziel, and Gazra that I am not coming back. You will remind Zaebos and Zapan of the dangers of working with people like them.”

He nodded, perhaps a little too quickly. “Of course, I’ll tell them.”

I smiled cruelly, baring my fangs. “You don’t understand, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” I said, trying out the new insult Huntsman had developed a while back. “You are going to give the warlords a message. That is all.”

The vampire blinked, then, as realization dawned, leapt out of his chair and ran for the far exit.

“Prinde-l şi-l rupe în bucăţi.”

The sclavi bolted off as if shot from a gun, chasing after the fleeing nightstalker—ah, former nightstalker—with naked glee. He didn’t have the slightest chance of escaping them. Like most higher-ranked Belians, Chamo refused the physical-enhancing drugs and chems in favor of the mental-enhancing ones.

He tripped and stumbled, and the chem-heads were on him in a flash.

His screams echoed through the unfurbished building, bouncing off the concrete walls.

I didn’t have to stay. It would probably have been a good idea for me to run; the cries could attract attention.

But I stayed. I told myself it was because if you are going to murder someone, you should at least be willing to watch them die. But deep down, I knew the truth.

I suppose I was still a Belian after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 91)

I think this came out pretty well. Maybe too much name-dropping all around, but still.